Diversity is the key to creativity. Not just diversity in your workforce, but in your personal life, the teams you form and the managers whom you hire and promote, explains Jeffrey Baumgartner.

Arguably, one of the most important ingredients for creative thinking is diversity. We all know that diverse teams produce more creative results than teams in which all members are from a similar background. Tests have shown that the one sure-fire way of improving your creativity is to move abroad. Not travel, but move. Living in a new culture, learning new ways of doing things and, in short, diversifying your life makes you more creative. That’s not surprising.

To understand why this is the case, let’s look at what creativity is. It is a mental process in which two or more bits of information come together in your mind to create a new and useful idea. (I use the word “useful” in its broadest sense here. Scientific evidence shows that schizophrenia is similar: various bits of information come together to form new ideas and beliefs. However, in this case the new ideas are not based in reality and can lead to delusions, hallucinations and paranoia).

This seems simple enough. But our minds organize information in a structured manner, so that similar pieces of information are associated with each other and effectively exist in proximity. Such structure is necessary for processing and managing all the data that is stored in our heads.

As a result, when you are looking for solutions to a problem – and virtually all creativity is the result of trying to solve some kind of problem – your brain tends to work with information that is related to the problem. For instance, if you want to impress a client with a business presentation, your immediate mental reaction will probably be to think about PowerPoint software, images, slogans, case studies and that kind of thing. All of these thoughts are associated with business presentations in your mind.

But, if you want to get creative, you need to diversify your thinking and encourage your mind to look for information associated with other concepts. For instance, you might think about drama, which is vaguely related to presentations, and have the creative idea to perform a small role play for a client, in order to demonstrate your company’s services in a more realistic way. This latter approach is more creative, basically as a result of diversifying your thinking.

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Diversification in personal creativity

If you are looking to generate more creative ideas to solve a problem, the best thing you can do is to diversify your thinking. A classic way to do this is to open a dictionary, or any book, and select a word at random. Then try to generate ideas that use that word. This forces your brain to diversify its thinking and look for solutions in more distant mental nooks and crannies. Incidentally, a more modern variation on that approach is to then google the word and select the fourth link on the eighth page of results (or use some other arbitrary pair of numbers).

Likewise, going for a walk, visiting an art gallery or applying a distantly related model to the problem can also be effective. The last method, applying a distantly related model, can be very effective. Choose a concept – such as a business model, a complex object or a game – that is only slightly related to the problem at hand. In the example above, looking at drama to find a solution for a business problem is an example. Another example is a bank that wants to provide more streamlined services to customers. They might use the model of a fast food restaurant. Both are service oriented businesses, but they have little else in common. Nevertheless, looking at how a fast food restaurant manages food, serves customers quickly and promotes new products can provide a wealth of inspiration for a bank.

Diversification in teams

Teams can use personal creativity-diversity techniques in order to generate more creative ideas. In addition, team leaders and those putting together teams should strive for diversification. Bring in women and me from various departments, with various educational backgrounds and, ideally with different cultural backgrounds. Such people will provide a wider range of knowledge from which to extract information and build upon ideas.

Nevertheless, the work environment can not only stifle creativity, but can force people to think in a corporate way. In terms of corporate image, this is good. But for creativity it is bad. Hence taking the team to external locations in order to generate and develop ideas also injects diversity into group thinking.

Diversification in companies

In order to have diverse teams in your company, it is essential that your people are diverse in background, education, knowledge and experience. Ideally, hire people from other countries and cultures as well. Not only do such people provide diversity within your workforce, but each of them will also have networks of professional associates whose knowledge they can tap in order to solve problems and accomplish tasks. Needless-to-say, diverse people will have diverse networks and provide your company with a vast and diverse meta-network at your disposal.

Diversity should also include, as much as possible, an even mix of sexes not only at the employee level, but also at management and board level.

Diversity and managers

Clearly, managers should hire diverse people for their divisions and build diverse teams to handle projects. Ideally, those teams will include people in other divisions as well. More importantly, managers need to give responsibility to subordinates and trust those subordinates to handle those responsibilities in their own way. This can often be difficult for new managers who have found their own effective approaches to performing tasks. And it can often lead to micromanagement. But taking the latter approach leads to more work for the manager and less creativity for the division.

Instead, managers need to trust their people, to do things their own way, and learn from the new approaches team members take in order to solve problems.

Your diversity homework

Even when not actively trying to solve problems, adding diversity to your life provides you with more knowledge, experience and insight than you would have without that diversity, Diversity can be as simple as trying new foods, taking evening classes in new subjects, travelling abroad and reading books on new subjects. Moving abroad is even better, but not always practical.

Thanks to the popularity of networking web sites like LinkedIn and Facebook, many of us now have networks that include people we have never met. So, from time to time, why not select someone from your on-line network and meet up for a coffee just to exchange ideas and get to know each other. It’s a great way to learn and diversify.

And, of course, if you are ever in the Brussels, Belgium area, you can always buy me a coffee! I’d love to meet you!

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

About the author

Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.

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